Tailoring Parental Involvement to Your Afterschool Setting

by Laura Paris, Director, Arts & Literacy Program, Coalition for Hispanic Family Services

Usually afterschool programs start out working with children, and then realize that our efforts are for naught without family support. This leaves afterschool practitioners with a welcome challenge: to create family involvement activities that parents will access because they are fun and meet a need. Though afterschool programs’ models for engaging parents are as diverse as their communities and programming, the experience of the Coalition for Hispanic Family Services’ Arts and Literacy Program may help other programs figure out how to tailor a family involvement program to their needs and community.

First Attempts

For the first few years after its founding in 1993, the Arts and Literacy Afterschool and Summer Program focused on developing strategies for building literacy using the arts. We had a successful model: Children’s reading, writing, and math skills—and their social skills—improved through their work on interdisciplinary arts projects. Yet their parents viewed us as a babysitting or homework help program that "just did art."

We realized that our once-a-year orientation and post-dismissal conversations with parents were not enough to communicate the most successful aspects of the program. These forums also didn’t allow parents to give us feedback, be informed about what their children were doing with us, or form a supportive community.

We had a lot of work to do, but we started with a small, manageable step: We brought in an expert to lecture on appropriate homework. We thought we did everything right! The expert was well-spoken, knowledgeable, and organized. We translated the presentation for our Spanish-speaking parents and provided bilingual handouts, as well as food and childcare. Ten parents attended, which is pretty good for parental involvement in our neighborhood. But when we evaluated parent and staff feedback, we concluded that the abstract information was difficult for parents to put into practice. In a brainstorming session, we realized we would have more success if we used an experiential, art-based method to engage parents—that is, we should build on our strengths and institutional culture, using the same strategies that work with our children.


Suddenly we had our family involvement formula: The children perform for their parents, and then we transition into an arts-based family literacy activity. Of course it took time and effort to implement this insight, but the first family literacy workshop we conducted using the children’s performance as a "hook" brought in over 80 percent of parents. They applauded their children and mingled with staff. We did not need the evaluation forms to see that the event was a success.

Today we still facilitate monthly family literacy workshops to promote family literacy and foster an understanding of our educational philosophy. Approximately 95 percent of parents attend each workshop. Having children perform or present their work not only serves as an integral part of the creative process that helps to motivate the children, but it also motivates busy parents to attend. Seeing their children’s accomplishments helps parents better understand the children’s experience in the program. Workshop evaluations indicate that parents now understand that art can be used to improve literacy.

Each month the workshop following the performances exposes the parents to a different program content area while addressing parenting skills. Workshops include drama games that foster teamwork and conflict resolution, illustrated books about the family’s history, and family photographs accompanied by acrostics. See descriptions of our most popular family literacy workshops. Each activity suggests ways for families to spend time together while supporting the program’s arts-based learning. The workshops are also a forum for the parents to network and discuss the program, school, and the stress of modern life.

Opening Pandora’s Box

Once we had a strong community of parents who felt comfortable speaking with staff, we realized that we needed to further develop the program to meet families’ needs. Parents confided problems ranging from domestic violence to housing, but the staff felt powerless because we were not equipped to handle social service issues. However, the communication allowed us to document families’ needs and thereby secure funding for a parent leader/caseworker. Today the program has three bilingual parent leaders/caseworkers who do comprehensive intakes with families to identify and meet social service needs, as well as to establish trust should additional needs arise. For instance, when we found that our parents needed accessible mental health services, we created a family art therapy component. The intake procedure asks the parents to draw and write—sending the message that we are about art, literacy, and hands-on participation from Day One.

Parents and parent leaders are constantly coming up with new suggestions that lead to changes in the program. Now parent leaders organize weekend family trips to cultural institutions such as museums and theaters. Last year parent leaders published monthly program newsletters, helped parents pool used school uniforms, organized potlucks, and arranged trips to advocacy meetings. We have seen an increase in student attendance and retention that we attribute to parents’ connection with the program and understanding of its modality.

Lessons Learned

Developing our family involvement component has been a process. We are constantly working out the kinks, reviewing evaluations, and brainstorming new ideas. But we have learned some lessons:

  • Be open to experimentation—you may not get it right the first time.
  • Build on program strengths and philosophy—don’t just import ideas that work elsewhere.
  • Make it fun!
  • Create activities that meet both parent needs and program needs.
  • Evaluate your experiments using a variety of tools
  • Dialogue, brainstorm, and reassess constantly as a group—ideas beget ideas.
  • Include stakeholders, including parents, in decision making.
  • Use the kids to hook the parents.
  • Provide culturally sensitive materials in the languages of your families.
  • Provide food and childcare.
  • Try and try again!

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In this Issue


Anne Lawrence
Laura Paris
Laurie Z. Ragsdale
Maria Santana


Jan Gallagher

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David W. Hill

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